Jane Austen's Emma is as Exquisite and Multi-Layered as a Painting by Vermeer
Watching the new adaptation of Emma on PBS I was enchanted by its visual beauty. I am not talking about the actors, although Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller are easy on the eye, but about the richness of the colors of the costumes and sets, and the precise composition of the exterior and interior shots and placement of the camera. When I viewed the images I had pulled, I realized why I had reacted so viscerally to this production: the pictures reminded me of the paintings of my favorite Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer. Thinking about this visual connection, I was struck by the coincidences in the lives and careers of Jane Austen and this master painter.
Emma wanders through the house, alone and restless. Framed in the doorway, she is isolated, both literally and figuratively.
Both the painter and writer are known for their limited but exquisite output, and neither was particularly appreciated during their lifetime. Yes, the Prince Regent had Jane dedicate her new novel, Emma, to him, as he was one of her admirers, but she lived in obscurity, wrote her novels as "a lady" (not under her own name), and did not achieve fame until well after her death. Vermeer, whose output of three paintings per year was a fraction of the work his contemporaries produced, such as Frans Hals or Jan Steen, had many of his paintings initially attributed to others, and thus did not gain widespread recognition until the late 19th century.
Emma spies Mr. Knightley walking towards her, but we see him out of focus through the barrier of a window, much as she sees him internally. She does not yet recognize how much he truly means to her.
Both Jane and Vermeer were meticulous in their observations. Vermeer's canvases were small, even tiny, (except for The View of Delft, which is not huge by painterly standards), but upon close examination they reveal a richness of detail and luminosity that he painstakingly created by glazing layers upon layers of transparent colors on top of each other. The depth of color Vermeer achieved is unmatched. His paintings seem to glow from within, and his use of light and shade and composition are masterful. Jane Austen's novels also glow. She is most famous for her keen observations of village life and the characters who inhabit her novels. They are so vivid, that one is convinced that one has met these people before. Jane's plots were about ordinary people living ordinary lives. She included no exotic locations or larger-than-life-melodramas, or even much information about the world beyond the novel's regional setting, yet one can reread her books over and over, and gain new insights about the human character every time. Her sharp perceptions of humans and their foibles keep her novels fresh for each generation that discovers them.
Rooms lead to other rooms and a window provides a glimpse of the outdoors, as in a Vermeer painting. The colors are lush, almost jewel in tone, and balanced by light and shadow.
Both Austen and Vermeer made precious little money from their talents. In an age when large group paintings like Rembrandt's The Nightwatch provided a source of steady income for painters, small and intimate views of domestic scenes were not likely to garner a huge income. Vermeer sold only a few of his works, which today are considered priceless, and was kept on a small retainer by a patron named Ruijven. Jane Austen sold four of her books during her lifetime, receiving a total of £684 13s for her efforts. Multiply this amount by 50, and you have a notion of how little this sum represents today.
Emma greets Harriet at the door. The shadows on the floor faintly echo a Dutch black and white tiled pattern. The scene could well be of a servant taking orders from her mistress, which in effect is how the scene developed when Emma suggested that Harriet reject Mr. Martin's proposal.
Both Austen and Vermeer offer a bit of mystery. It is conjectured that Vermeer used a camera obscura and other optical devises to create his striking (and deceptively simple) compositions, but his exact work methods remain a mystery. In addition, Vermeer used props for the allegorical tales that his paintings represented. In order to decipher the story, the viewer needed to learn their symbolic associations. Many critics feel that Jane Austen's Emma is the first true detective story or mystery novel. Upon second and third reading, one realizes that Miss Bates's inane chatter offers up many clues; it is the same with Mrs. Elton, who Jane uses as a device to show the plot hidden underneath the surface story. While Emma remains clueless, the perceptive reader does not, and we are provided with hints about the true nature of Mr. Elton's feelings for Emma and Frank Churchill's relationship with Jane Fairfax long before we are "told." Both the writer and artist trick their audiences into thinking that their worlds are tranquil and peaceful, when in reality a darker, truer message lurks underneath the surface.
A quieter, more thoughtful and grown-up Emma discusses Frank Churchill's engagement to Jane Fairfax with Mrs. Weston. She is bathed in light, while Mrs. Weston, who should have seen through the situation earlier, sits in shadow.
While I am aware that a cinematic adaptation of a book that is over 400 pages long cannot contain every layer of complexity of the original work, this 4-hour adaptation directed by Jim O'Hanlon often visually delivers the subtext that the script (by necessity) ignores. Emma at times is filmed looking from the outside in, or paused alone in a long hallway, or sitting in a room where doors lead to other doors and windows to wider open vistas. Not only is Emma's character handled in this manner, but others as well. In one particularly effective instance, Mr. Elton leads his bride to the strawberry-picking party on a donkey. Without wasting words, the scene immediately informs us that he has not only already tired of Mrs. Elton, but that she is literally dragging him down.
All in all, I was seldom disappointed with the photography of this new adaptation of Emma. I'll let others describe how well the actors portrayed their parts. As for me, I am going to slip the DVD in the player one more time and sit back and enjoy this visually beautiful film. In ending, I'm reminded of yet another comparison between Jane Austen and Johannes Vermeer: the depth of their work. Within the finite, detailed, and rather narrow confines of their worlds, one enriched his masterpiece with lush glazes of color, shadow and light; while the other added layers of complexity with her ideas and words.
More on the topic:
Essential Vermeer.com http://www.essentialvermeer.com/index.html
Emma Adaptations http://www.strangegirl.com/emma/novel.php
The Jane Austen Society of the